What if you could actually know and use the Lydian mode?
What if, instead of playing the fretboard guessing game, you actually knew what you were playing and why?
You’d be able to identify when, where and why you were using the Lydian mode. Moreover, you would recognize its composition, theoretical basics and sound, even within a larger piece of music. We’ll do this by not just memorizing the Lydian mode in a fretboard context but, by studying the theory surrounding it and how to apply it to our solo construction.
In short, we’ll cover the following:
- What is the Lydian mode?
- How exactly do you play it?
- Applying it to solo construction
- The context of chord progression development
You can also checkout our how to play guitar parent page for more broad topical coverage of these and other concepts.
Supplemental Guitar Lesson Resources
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The reality is that getting good at just about anything, requires structural study, and it’s no coincidence that almost all of the world’s best guitar players are also excellent music theorists and students of their instrument.
When I’ve heard professional guitarists talk about the Lydian mode (among other modes and scales), and I’ve had no clue what that really meant, it made me feel behind the gun. In a way, that’s just a feeling and doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a terrible musician. But, why not actually know the system? Why not educate myself like the pros have?
Because the reality is that getting good at just about anything, requires structural study. It’s no coincidence that almost all of the world’s best guitar players are also excellent music theorists and students of their instrument.
To that end, I think it’s worth our time to try and really understand what we’re playing; to go the extra mile past memorizing a mode, by making an effort to understand and apply it.
1. Beginning the Lydian Mode Guitar Study: What exactly is it?
To understand the Lydian mode properly, we need to have a little bit of basic music theory under our belts before we dig in. Some of this I will assume but, most of it I will explain. First, the Lydian mode is essentially a small variant of the major scale. The difference is that the Lydian mode, has a raised fourth degree, also called a sharped fourth note. Otherwise, it’s identical to your typical major scale pattern.
For example, let’s look at a major scale in the key of F: F G A B♭ C D E F
Now, the Lydian mode in the key of F: F G A B C D E F
We simply raise the B♭ to a B to create the Lydian mode.
Why use the Lydian mode?
What characterizes this sound? What’s the point of using it?
To get our answer, we need to examine the sound and mood that this scale creates. We can do that by taking the notes above and plugging them into a tab sheet that displays the scale.
LYDIAN MODE GUITAR TAB DIAGRAM
The first three (the left-most note) is our root F note, while the four is our raised fourth degree. If you know your intervals, you’ll recognize that the distance between these two notes (six semitones or frets) creates what’s called a tritone. Tritones sound kind of creepy and eerie, and have historically been considered by music theorists to be a sound that was too distressing and bizarre to have any good use.
These days, the tritone shows up in a lot of music, particularly in hard-rock guitar solos. For example, Godsmack’s Tony Rombola uses them heavily in his solo for “Awake” to help add to the song’s dark and driving appeal.
However, in the Lydian mode, you’ve got the tritone sound overlapping with a major key. The result is a somewhat odd combination of tensions. One of the best examples is probably something you’ll recognize.
The Simpson’s theme song was well thought out by the composer, as he employs the Lydian mode to add a slightly “off-color” and strange sound to the melody, all of which is layered over the upbeat vibe of the major scale. This matches the spirit of the show quite well and serves as a great example of how the Lydian mode can help change a musical mood.
Here’s how you’d play it on the guitar, beginning at the ninth measure:
The song is in the key of C, which means our Lydian mode would look like this: C D E F♯ G A B C
Our fourth note on the major scale, the F, gets raised one semitone to F♯. We can find that note at the 19th fret in our tab sheet.
You can think of the Lydian mode as a structured way to change the tension or feel of a major scale or a particular piece of music that is played in a major key. That’s partly why we call Lydian a “mode” and not simply a “scale,” because it’s a slight mod of a parent scale shape.
2. How exactly do I play it?
How do we identify and then play the Lydian mode on the fretboard? What’s the system behind it? First, we establish a key. In this case, I’m going to continue in the key of C, just to give us an easy example.
If you go to a place like all-guitar-chords.com, you’ll probably end up with something like this:
I’ve selected Lydian, highlighted “C” and selected the third fret pattern. Up front, you don’t have to memorize this entire pattern. Sites and programs like this are helpful, but in this case, the web application has filled in a number of notes that extend the mode beyond its formal scope.
We just want the short version. Remember how we said that a Lydian mode is just a variance on a major scale?
Let’s look at the Major Scale Wikipedia page.
We learn quickly that a major scale is a diatonic scale which is made up a seven notes and eight scale degrees, where the first and last degree are the same note, just an octave apart. In other words, our major scale — our Lydian mode’s structural reference — will go from C to C, with all other notes falling between those two octaves.
Note also the interval sequence of a major (diatonic) scale, which are the following:
Whole — Whole — Half — Whole — Whole — Whole — Half
Again, it helps to know your intervals, because if you do, you’ll recognize immediately that a whole step is two frets from a given note and a half step is one fret (or semitone) from a given note. Recall that in a Lydian mode, we take the fourth note of the scale and raise it, adding a sharp.
Armed with this information, let’s take a closer look at the scale that All-Guitar-Chords.com tossed out for us.
This diagram has kindly highlighted the two root notes of our scale, by coloring the two Cs a darker shade of orange. At a minimum, we can know that our actual Lydian mode is made up of everything between those two notes. If we want to take it a step further, we can apply the interval sequence from the major scale, while accounting for the raised fourth degree.
The C to D is whole step, the D to E is a whole step, the E to F would be the half step, but we raise it to F# and the sequence goes on in that manner until we get to the C note at the fifth fret.
It changes the interval sequence to the following: Whole — Whole — Whole — Half — Whole — Whole — Half This occurs because moving the fourth degree one semitone higher alters the interval sequence both in front and behind it.
This formally ends our mode, giving us the following tab (which you’ve already seen).
That’s how you put it all together. Now you can build or identify a Lydian mode in any key. Simply transpose the shape you see here or use the following knowledge to build your own:
A Lydian mode must:
- Fall between two octaves
- Raise (sharp) the fourth degree of the scale
- Adhere to the interval sequence of a basic major scale but, also account for the raised fourth degree
If you can apply this and understand it, you’ve gotten the basic theory of the Lydian mode down to a hard science. In my opinion, that’s an important part of making it work in the realm of creative expression.
Let’s get to some application.
3. Using the Lydian Mode in Guitar Solos
First, you should be aware that the context of this discussion is going to lean towards solo construction, as opposed to improvisation. Since we’re looking at some fairly specific music theory, applying it to our lead work means we’ve got to be intentional about the notes we’re playing. Again, think back to our Simpson’s melody.That “solo” or melody line was implemented with a distinct vision and purpose, and the Lydian mode was carefully selected to accomplish the task.
That’s not to say improvising is bad or that you can’t use the Lydian mode in that context but, just understand that in this case the context is careful solo construction and not improvisation.
Incorporating the Lydian Melody
Incorporating a melody sounds more complicated than it is, especially because we can easily draw up tabs by memorizing the Lydian mode interval sequence. That sequence can be found on the Lydian mode Wikipedia page (we also drew it up earlier).
The modern Lydian mode is a rising pattern of pitches comprising three whole tones, a semitone, two more whole tones and a final semitone.
That’s the system we’ll use to create Lydian melodies and to incorporate them into our solos, which means memorizing this interval sequence would be time well spent.
Whole — Whole — Whole — Half — Whole — Whole — Half
Let’s say we wanted to build a Lydian mode in the key of G, beginning on the third fret at the low G note. We could do it, simply by adhering to this interval sequence. Beginning on the root G:
Armed with a root note of our choice, we’re able to use the interval sequence to create our Lydian run without having to look anything up.
If we want to continue developing this run, you can either continue in the Lydian mode, break into a different mode entirely or simply add major intervals (since we’re assuming a major key). We could also break into a chromatic scale but, that would likely sound awful. The goal, overall, is to develop an ability to recognize these modes and use them intentionally.
Sure, you might stumble across a Lydian pattern by accident but, if you know when and where you want to play it, you can access the emotional tension that it creates on purpose, when you know it will be a good musical fit.
4. Using the Lydian Mode to Build Chord Progressions
To learn how to build chord progressions from any scale, much less the Lydian mode, we need to understand some basic chord theory and become familiar with how chord progressions are written when they’re derived from modes. Let’s begin with this entry in the Chord Progressions Wikipedia page:
In western classical notation, chords built on the scale are numbered with Roman numerals. For example, the D chord will be figure I in the key of D, but IV in the key of A. Minor chords are signified by lower case Roman numerals, so that D minor in the key of C would be written ii.
Let’s start with something simple, like the chords in the key of C. We first need the notes in the C major scale.
They are the following: C D E F G A B C
Going from left to right, the above scale corresponds to the sequences and chords in the following diagram.
Now, if you understand chord progressions in the context of their parent scales, you can then write them using these roman numerals, as shown in the chart. When you see that numeral in reference to a scale sequence, it’s talking about the position of a chord or note within a given key. Once you know those positions, you can create chord progressions using the above diagram and scale sequence as your structure.
Note that of the chords shown in the diagram, the seventh chord version of each one is also usable.
If we were to write some “common” chord progressions derived from the key of C, they would look like this:
If you want to indicate any combination or arrangement of chords within a given scale, that Roman numeral pattern is how you should write it. We can use the same process to build chord progressions from the Lydian mode. All we need to do is switch out our C major scale for a C Lydian.
Let’s break down the Lydian mode in that manner.
Modal Lydian Chord Progression
Remember, to get to our Lydian mode, we add a raised fourth degree to our C major scale.
We can then easily establish our progression from the Lydian mode notes: C D E F# G A B C
So, a “modal” progression would be derived from these notes and written using roman numerals, just like the above diagram. For example, E, F# and A would be written like this: III — IV — VI.
This doesn’t mean that your chord progressions always have to be backed by a mode (although they probably are), nor does it mean that you have to think through this process every time you want to develop a progression. But whether you realize it or not, this is theoretically, what’s going on underneath the hood of any grouping of guitar chords. In this video, courtesy of creativeguitar.ca, the instructor builds a chart that details a number of different chords and progressions that can be derived from the Lydian mode.
Here’s part of that same graphic (from the marker board in the video) that’s a bit easier to read.
By doing some harmony analysis (whether the chord is major, minor or diminished), Andrew Wasson comes up with a number of extended chords that he can use to develop chord progressions based on the Lydian mode. If you watch the video, you’ll see that Wasson actually extends his harmony analysis to other intervals (5th, 7th, 9th etc.).
Dude is smart.
But for our purposes, this gives you enough understanding of the options you have when deriving chords from the Lydian mode. Since you’ve understood the basic music theory involved, you can now do the same.
Follow Up and Other Resources
If you want to keep studying modes, there are plenty of resources, both paid and free that can help you out. The following links in particular can be helpful in Lydian mode guitar study:
- Ancient Modes
- Modal Tonicization in Rock: Special Case of the Lydian Mode
- Emotional Cases of Diatonic Modes
If you want a quicker read, I’d recommend some Wikipedia browsing to help get you familiar with the Lydian mode and the concepts surrounding it. The information there is up-to-date, accurate, succinct and it’s all interconnected. It’s one of modern man’s best resources, so don’t be afraid to use it. You can also refer to the works cited portion of a Wikipedia page to see where the information is coming from.
It’s all there, folks. You don’t have to go to college and pay an obscene amount of money to take music theory. All this information is available to us, right here, right now.
Why not take advantage of it? For guitar players, it’s well worth the effort to get to know the mechanics and the science of our instrument. It’ll give structure to what we play, and help us to have a better understanding of what’s happening on the fretboard and why.
Best of luck.